America Isn't on the Brink of Nuclear War—It Just Looks That Way.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the completed Mirae Scientists Street, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on October 21, 2015.

The risks of war are still higher than they should be. But on the Korean Peninsula, at least, 2018 is off to a happy start.

By declaring victory in his nuclear showdown with Washington and offering an olive branch to Seoul, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may just have saved us all from nuclear war.

“We achieved the goal of completing our state nuclear force in 2017,” Kim claimed in a live TV broadcast as 2017 ended. “The United States can never fight a war against me and our state. It should properly know that the whole territory of the U.S. is within the range of our nuclear strike . . . This is just a reality, not a threat. . . . These weapons will be used only if our security is threatened.”

He also said that “the North and the South should no longer do anything that would aggravate the situation, and must exert efforts to ease military tensions and create a peaceful environment.”

Kim seems to have taken to heart the semi-serious proposal made a half century ago by Republican Sen. George Aiken of Vermont: to end the killing in Vietnam by announcing that the United States had won the war.

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If President Johnson had listened, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved in Indochina. Today, at least that many lives are at stake in North Asia and the United States as the Trump administration threatens to attack North Korea to prevent it from making further progress on its nuclear weapons program.

“There easily could be a million deaths on the first day,” said Stanford University International Security Expert Scott Sagan.

By declaring his nuclear force completed, however, Kim can, without losing face, avoid conducting further missile tests that may trigger an all-out response from Washington. And by letting U.S. officials assert that his nuclear capabilities aren’t quite as great as he claims, Kim has given the United States the ability step back from the brink of war without losing credibility.

A 50/50 Chance of War

Most Americans are preoccupied with making a living, getting through the holidays, or tuning out all the noisy political debates in Washington. They have little appreciation that the Korean standoff may be the closest the United States has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

“We’re actually closer in my view, to a nuclear war with North Korea and in that region than we have ever been,” said Ret. Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, only hours before Kim’s speech. Former CIA Director John Brennan said in October that the chances of war with North Korea were “too high,” as much as 1-in-4. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has put those odds as high as 50/50.

And President Trump’s foreign-policy adviser and golfing buddy, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, said recently that if North Korea conducts another nuclear bomb test, then the odds that “we use the military option” rise to “70 percent.”

Many other experts have also based their unnerving assessments on public declarations and private discussions with President Trump’s foreign-policy advisers, which all point in the same direction: the administration is seriously gearing up to launch a preemptive war against North Korea. Its aim is not to stop an imminent attack against the United States, but to prevent the possibility of North Korea launching a nuclear attack in the future—however improbable and suicidal that might be.

“Our president has been really clear about this,” said National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, Trump’s national-security adviser, on Fox News. “He is not going to permit this rogue regime, Kim Jong-un, to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon. And so he is willing to do anything necessary to prevent that from happening. . . . And so, all of our armed forces are getting to really a high, high degree of readiness for this mission.”